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Japan Premier Offers Early Election

TOKYO—Japan’s embattled prime minister pledged to dissolve parliament and call a snap election next month, a contest that polls suggest his deeply unpopular ruling party is likely to lose.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, bottom left, listened to opposition Liberal Democratic Party President and former prime minister Shinzo Abe with his cabinet ministers, during a debate at Japan’s Lower House in Tokyo on Wednesday.

A defeat would give the nation its seventh prime minister in less than seven years at a time when the government faces a range of difficult policy challenges, including a testy standoff with China, an economy that appears to be heading toward recession, the world’s largest public debt and a sudden overhaul of energy policy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

With his public support rate hovering near 20% in recent weeks, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda announced Wednesday he would accept longstanding opposition demands to hold a vote this year, after securing a commitment for passage of legislation allowing the government to continue borrowing without running out of money, among other conditions

After taking office in Sept. 2011 with public backing above 60%, Mr. Noda’s popularity steadily eroded amid parliamentary gridlock on basic legislation and a string of cabinet resignations following gaffes and scandals—afflictions that have dragged down a string of recent predecessors. Mr. Noda also lost support after pushing to double the national sales tax to curb the country’s mammoth borrowing, and to restart nuclear reactors shut down after last year’s nuclear accident, tough measures he said were necessary for the economy’s long-term health.

The campaign for the Dec. 16 election is likely to include a heated debate on Japan’s handling of China, which is going through its own leadership transition, as well as strategies to fix the long-slumping economy, including the role of the Bank of Japan.

Shinzo Abe, the head of the leading opposition Liberal Democratic Party, has been at the forefront of a drive by politicians to pressure the central bank to adopt a firm 3% inflation target, compared with the bank’s more vague 1% goal. He also has talked about curbing the BOJ’s independence and appointing a new central bank governor favoring more aggressive monetary easing to end Japan’s long period of deflation. And he has said he would consider scrapping implementation of Mr. Noda’s sales-tax increase, scheduled to be phased in starting in 2014.

Mr. Abe, left, and Prime Minister Noda before their debate Wednesday.

“We should set an inflation target and print unlimited yen until we reach that target,” Mr. Abe said in a speech Wednesday afternoon, laying out his agenda for the upcoming campaign. He also noted that current BOJ Gov. Masaaki Shirakawa’s term ends next year, saying: “Luckily a new BOJ governor will be chosen next year, and the government will be able to have a strong voice on the decision. If this doesn’t work, we should eye the possibility of revising the BOJ law.”

In Tokyo trading late Wednesday after news of the December election was reported, the Japanese yen weakened and prices for Japanese government bonds fell, as traders handicapped the prospect of a new period of easy money and bigger debt.

Some analysts said that was in anticipation of an Abe administration. Mr. Abe’s policies “could lead to a downgrade in Japan’s sovereign ratings and an upsurge in JGB yields,” Deutsche Bank Group DBK.XE -3.76% research analyst Yoshinobu Yamada wrote in a note to clients. “In monetary policy, we would expect an aggressive easing aimed at transforming deflationary expectations to inflationary.”

In foreign policy, the 58-year-old Mr. Abe, who served as prime minister for one year from September 2006 to September 2007, has advocated a tougher stance toward Beijing, and has repeatedly taken actions seen as provocative by Japan’s largest neighbor. In the latest such move, Mr. Abe met Tuesday in Tokyo with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and pledged “we’ll do our utmost to change the situation where human rights are being oppressed,” taking a harder line against China on the issue than the current Japanese government. The meeting with Mr. Abe and more than 100 fellow lawmakers drew a strong protest from the Chinese foreign ministry.

While Mr. Abe’s LDP leads in the polls, it generally gets backing from about 25% to 30% of the voters, compared with about 10% to 15% for the DPJ. If Mr. Abe’s party fails to win a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, he would be required to join forces with some combination of smaller parties, perhaps leading to an unstable coalition.

For his part, Mr. Noda has expressed a desire to run next month’s election campaign on his support of free trade and his vow to have Japan begin talks on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an America-centered trade bloc that represents more than a quarter of the world economy.

Mr. Noda’s push has drawn strong opposition in Japan’s politically powerful rural areas, including many members of Mr. Noda’s own ruling Democratic Party of Japan. But the trade policy has been popular among business leaders, who share Mr. Noda’s view that it would force long-needed reforms of Japan’s protected sectors, possibly giving the languid economy a new source of vigor.

In a spate of recent public-opinion polls, Mr. Abe and his party have by far the highest voter support, and many analysts see him as Japan’s most likely next prime minister. That is still far from a certainty in a murky political world, with a spate of new political parties formed in recent weeks in anticipation of the contest, some led by prominent, popular politicians.

Still, the current strength of Mr. Abe and the LDP, and the weakness of Mr. Noda’s DPJ, marks a remarkable reversal of fortunes. The election comes 3½ years after the DPJ won a historic landslide victory in August 2009. In that contest, the DPJ ended nearly half a century of unbroken rule by the LDP, and seemed to usher in a new era of political realignment for a country plagued by weak leadership.

Mr. Abe was a chief example of that weak leadership. He served as prime minister for just one year before resigning after a series of cabinet members quit amid financial scandals (one committing suicide), a sharp decline in his popularity, and poor health. But over the past three years, the DPJ has proved as weak and unstable as the LDP—running through three prime ministers in as many years—while the LDP has proven more resilient than expected.

With the looming election and possible end of DPJ rule, “we have been able to bring an end to a confusing political situation and political vacuum,” Mr. Abe said Wednesday.

But one key question remains: Will this election bring Japan some needed political stability, perhaps centered around a revived LDP? Or is this just the next phase of an extended messy period of political realignment, as politicians continue to shuffle between parties, looking for a new lineup of political organizations, and proving more effective in opposition than in power?

Some voters are looking to a new “third force” outside the two main parties. Prominent nationalist and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has drawn attention by forming a new party this week, declaring “the people are fed up” with the current political system. He is seeking to join hands with the popular mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who created his own Japan Restoration Party a few weeks ago, to contest the election to try to shake up the existing political order. Hours after the December election was called, Kyodo News reported that a former DPJ cabinet member bolted the ruling party to join Mr. Hashimoto’s camp.

Whoever takes power after the December vote will have to face the voters again in the summer, when an election is scheduled for Japan’s upper house of parliament. No party currently has effective control of that body, and difficulty pushing legislation through that chamber has been a constant source of weakness for the recent spate of Japanese prime ministers—including Mr. Noda and Mr. Abe.

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